The Best Singer-Songwriter Albums of 2008

Artist: Steve Wynn
Album: Crossing Dragon Bridge
Label: Rock Ridge
US Release Date: 2008-09-09
UK Release Date: 2008-04-28

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List number: 1

Steve Wynn’s Crossing Dragon Bridge is an unusually acoustic-leaning and sophisticated sounding release for him. Though he’s clearly a talented songcrafter, Wynn tends to funnel his strongest works through a rock setting. Since disbanding his excellent 1980s group, the Dream Syndicate, his more rockin’ efforts (with the Miracle 3) have tended to be his best. Here, however, he channels Leonard Cohen, Jacques Brel, and other great singer-songwriters who have a flair for incorporating European melodies into their tunes and string arrangements into their recordings. Wynn traveled to Slovenia to make Crossing Dragon Bridge and performed the majority of it himself. Album bookends “Slovenian Rhapsody I” and “II” capture his locale, while standout tracks like “Love Me Anyway” and “Wait Until You Get to Know Me” employ a spare groove, allowing Wynn’s dark and self-deprecating wit to shine. The lovely “Manhattan Fault Line”, meanwhile, uses a more traditional singer-songwriter structure, accented by graceful strings. As strongly assured as Crossing Dragon Bridge is, you’d think Wynn had been recording albums like this all along.

Steve Wynn: Crossing Dragon Bridge

Artist: Martha Wainwright
Album: I Know You’re Married But I’ve Got Feelings Too
Label: Zoe
Label: Rounder
Contributors: Martha Wainwright
US Release Date: 2008-06-10
UK Release Date: 2008-05-12

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List number: 2

On her superbly titled sophomore release, Martha Wainwright (yes, daughter of Loudon and sister of Rufus) shrugs free of the conventions of her 2005 eponymous debut. It’s not that she was overly hemmed in before. That first album is a beauty, and her soaringly pretty-yet-creaky voice gave it great character. On her latest, though, she ventures further outside. Her singing here lays waste to standard notions of placement and rhythm, as her words take flight and touch down in marvelous and unexpected ways. Likewise, Wainwright loosens up the music on I Know You’re Married. From her picking patterns to the string sounds, the arrangements feel organic and open. Wainwright’s lyrics are devastatingly good, as well. She picks at her foolish heart until it’s raw and then describes the mess with candor, humor, and sharp imagery. On top of it all, she turns in excellent covers of Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd and early Eurythmics, and works them in seamlessly with her excellent batch of original tunes.Martha Wainwright: I Know You’re Married But I’ve Got Feelings Too

Artist: Lindsey Buckingham
Album: Gift of Screws
Label: Reprise
First date: Sept. 16
US Release Date: 2008-09-16
UK Release Date: 2008-09-15

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List number: 3

In Ron Hart’s review, he wrote that Lindsey Buckingham’s Gift of Screws sounds like “Fleetwood Mac without the chicks”, explaining that bassist John McVie and drummer Mick Fleetwood join Buckingham on three of the album’s tracks. “The best of these,” wrote Hart, “is the album’s title cut, a propulsive rocker in the vein of the more kinetic moments of Fleetwood Mac’s 1972 masterpiece Bare Trees and the bluesy ‘Wait for Me’, both of which exhibit the musical synergy of McVie, Buckingham, and Fleetwood better than anything they have ever recorded together. Elsewhere, tracks like ‘The Right Place to Fade’ and ‘Did You Miss Me?’ will remind fans of material from Fleetwood Mac’s surprise 2003 comeback album Say You Will. Other songs here will remind you of Buckingham’s previous solo effort, 2006’s magnificent Under the Skin.” He revives the intricate guitar picking of that album on Gift of Screws tracks like “Time Precious Time” and “Bel Air Rain”. Hart concludes: “There might not be a more poignant protest anthem in these times of bogus bailouts than ‘Treason’, a shimmering acoustic lament that stands out as one of the finest moments of Buckingham’s already-storied career.”

Lindsey Buckingham: Gift of Screws

Artist: Sam Phillips
Album: Don’t Do Anything
Label: Nonesuch
US Release Date: 2008-06-03
UK Release Date: 2008-06-02

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List number: 4

When Steve Horowitz reviewed the latest Sam Phillips album, Don’t Do Anything, he described its intriguing abstractions and the singer-songwriter’s balance between Zen philosophy and precise control: “Sam Phillips doesn’t seem to be a part of her music as much as she seems apart from it. Her voice comes from somewhere other than where the rest of the music originates, which gives her songs mysterious properties. Lyrically, she takes on various personae that seem to be intimate but at the same time the words hide the real person inside. It’s like hearing a private conversation behind a closed door, without knowing who one is listening to. Phillips realizes that music, like life, is found in the flaws. She creates sonic sandcastles with strings and percussion and croons above it, but her inner eye is open and sees the waves crashing to the shore. Phillips might preach ‘Don’t Do Anything’, but the constant flux of her music reveals that she knows better.”

Sam Phillips: Don’t Do Anything

Artist: Joe Jackson
Album: Rain
Label: Rykodisc
Contributors: Joe Jackson, Dave Houghton, Graham Maby
US Release Date: 2008-01-29
UK Release Date: 2008-01-28

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List number: 5

At first glance, Joe Jackson might not seem to qualify for membership in the singer-songwriter club. During the height of his success in the late ’70s and early ’80s, he was more closely associated with the new wave movement, providing the public with a piano-playing counterpart to Elvis Costello. A quarter-century later, Jackson has mellowed, both in terms of the intensity of his music and the barriers between himself and his audience. On Rain, he offers an intimate album that’s essentially a piano trio fronted by a former rock vocalist. In that regard, he’s Gershwin, Bill Evans, and Elton John all rolled into one. Fortunately, he’s Joe Jackson all over, which means he’s singing about the bruises incurred through love and bitterly bemoaning the state of politics and society. Jackson may have faltered in the ’90s, but he’s enjoying a career rebirth here in the aughts. Rain continues his streak of strong releases this millennium.Joe Jackson: Rain

Artist: Alejandro Escovedo
Album: Real Animal
Label: Back Porch
US Release Date: 2008-06-24
UK Release Date: 2008-06-24

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List number: 6

From Maura Walz’s review: “Alejandro Escovedo’s Real Animal is arguably his best album and is both his most straightforwardly autobiographical and the strongest synthesis of his many disparate musical impulses. If anything, Escovedo’s desert twang is the least prominent musical direction featured on this album, subordinated to the volume and direct rhythms of his punk loves, which mark about half the album, and the carefully orchestrated melodies that fill the chamber pop of the other half. Throughout Real Animal, a pattern emerges: Escovedo alternates his gritty punk and rock shouts with longing, string-filled ballads, and the pairs complement and reinforce one another. Lyrically, Escovedo seems to be fighting time throughout, trying to live simultaneously among his ghosts while relishing the present moment, which always passes as quickly as it came. While Escovedo probably will never have as much time as he could assuredly fill, one is confident that he still has quite a bit more. Music this rich and evocative should be heard by everyone, and one can only hope that more and more people will hear as Escovedo continues to write his own story.”

Alejandro Escovedo: Real Animal

Artist: Elliott Murphy
Album: Notes from the Underground
Label: Last Call
US Release Date: 2008-04-15
UK Release Date: Available as import

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List number: 7

Elliott Murphy has been around for 35 years now, but don’t beat yourself up if you’ve yet to be exposed to the perennially under-appreciated storyteller. The strength of his first few albums had Rolling Stone heralding Murphy as the next Bob Dylan, but that elusive hit record left him forgotten by the end of the ’70s. Forgotten, yes, but far from gone. Since the late ’90s, he’s been back on a roll, issuing consistently strong albums. Notes from the Underground is another very good later day full-length from Murphy, with evocative songwriting and some surprisingly contemporary production touches from guitarist Olivier Durand. As a singer, Murphy’s always sounded like a blending of David Bowie and Tom Petty (the latter in hindsight, since Murphy’s career started first), and this album mixes the lush, spacey rock of Bowie’s Heathen with the bruised Americana of Petty’s Wildflowers. Lyrics have always been one of Murphy’s greatest strengths, and he turns out another great set here, setting lost love amongst the ghosts of history (“And General Robert E. Lee”) and literature (“Ophelia”). Like everything Murphy’s released, this album has gone largely unnoticed, but Notes from the Underground is another very fine entry in the singer-songwriter’s highly rewarding discography. Murphy is deserving of a far wider audience.

Elliott Murphy: Notes from the Underground

Artist: Randy Newman
Album: Harps and Angels
Label: Nonesuch
US Release Date: 2008-08-05
UK Release Date: 2008-08-04

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List number: 8

From Ron Hart’s review: “If you thought Randy Newman’s lyrics had venom on his 1974 masterpiece Good Old Boys, the songs he’s constructed for Harps and Angels makes Nas’ formerly-titled-Nigger album seem like a news bumper for Fox stumping John McCain for president. Looking down the barrel of senior citizenship at age 64, Newman’s filter has all but disappeared. Even before you listen to the words on Harps and Angels, the first thing you will notice is the undeniable Dixieland sound of Newman’s New Orleans woven throughout the fabric of these ten tracks. Sonically, the music is as whimsical as his soundtrack to 1995’s Pixar classic Toy Story. However, don’t mistake the jovial, showtune-y nature of the music as anything less than just one of the many potshots that Newman takes on the Bush Administration. What’s great about Randy Newman is that he’s possibly the only artist in American pop who can offer the most touching, gushing scores for films and then deliver what could very well be the most controversial album created by a white man in 2008. Harps and Angels belongs up there with 12 Songs and Sail Away as one of Newman’s greatest works.”

Randy Newman: Harps and Angels

Artist: Jakob Dylan
Album: Seeing Things
Label: Columbia
US Release Date: 2008-06-10
UK Release Date: 2008-06-16

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List number: 9

Being the son of Bob Dylan can’t be easy for a professional musician. Jakob Dylan smartly chose to downplay his larger-than-life surname by leading the innocuous alternative pop/rock band the Wallflowers. After 16 years with that group, Jakob Dylan finally comes out from behind the curtain with his debut solo album, Seeing Things. His sandpapery voice has never sounded much like his dad’s nasally delivery, but it’s reassuring to find that, even in this stripped-down setting, Jakob’s songwriting also bears virtually no resemblance’s to Papa Bob’s. A much more likely comparison is to Bruce Cockburn’s least adorned works. Sometimes the similarity in vocal timbre, delivery, and melodic structure is uncanny. This is almost assuredly coincidental, but an appreciation for Cockburn’s wearily pretty folk music is probably a better predictor for appreciating Seeing Things than being a Wallflowers fan is. Still, Jakob Dylan’s record deserves to be liked on its own merits. It’s a deeply mature and reflective work that consistently evokes the mood of a bare winter’s day. A few tracks don’t stand out right away, but those that do — the spare and bluesy “I Couldn’t Stop”, quietly cheery “Something Good This Way Comes”, and the deceptively lullaby-like opener “Evil Is Alive and Well” — draw attention to the other, simpler charms of Seeing Things.

Jakob Dylan: Seeing Things

Artist: Billy Bragg
Album: Mr. Love & Justice
Label: Anti
US Release Date: 2008-04-22
UK Release Date: 2008-03-08

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List number: 10

I’ve always been partial to Bragg’s less political material, so Mr. Love & Justice scores high with me. Some of his fans might be initially put off by a record that offers a much higher quantity of “love” than “justice”, but Bragg’s winning writing and welcoming voice should reel them back in. Whatever his subject matter, Bragg sets his keen eye and his lively melodies to the affair. The album’s opening trio of tracks — “I Keep Faith”, “I Almost Killed You”, and “M for Me” — are all highlights and set the lyrical tone: love, like justice, is a worthwhile struggle. Bragg varies the music nicely, from strummy folk to full-band arrangements served with a bit of rock crunch. He brings a light touch to his ardent Socialism with the fun and honky-tonkin’ “The Beach Is Free”, then gets dark later with “O Freedom”, a song about a person whose rights are neglected in the name of counter-terrorism. The album’s lone misfire is “The Johnny Carcinogenic Show”, with its groaningly bad pun of a title that might have been clever (or at least current) a couple of decades ago. The majority of the songs here, however, are smartly written, catchy, tender, often fun, and quite memorable.

Billy Bragg: Mr. Love & Justice